Letters to Brevard inmates stamped out

Sheriff Wayne Ivey says policy changed over safety concerns

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VIERA, Fla. - In an environment of pricey phone calls and limited visitation hours, jail mail has long been a practical way to communicate with someone on the inside. But friends and family of Brevard inmates now have to cram their support into a much smaller box — inmates can no longer receive letters.

Many haven't yet been convicted and are presumed to be innocent, but they have to settle for postcards no larger than 4.25 by 6 inches. A lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union called the move "constitutionally suspect."

"It raises some serious constitutional questions and ignores some public policy realities," ACLU attorney Benjamin Stevenson told Local 6 News partner Florida Today.

"I understand the importance of being in communication with the outside," Sheriff Wayne Ivey said. "But there is nothing that takes precedence over protecting our team and protecting that facility."

This shift in policy, which was rewritten in July, is another change at the jail made under Ivey, who is approaching the end of his first year in office. In March, Ivey implemented a chain gang which has inmates in shackles picking up trash.

Ivey explained that under the old mail policy, deputies were catching incoming contraband weekly — from drugs to pornography. In one case a deputy uncovered a gun coming in; in another case they received an envelope containing powder.

Tuesday morning, a man sorted mail in a small room in the jail complex. He set aside some envelopes that would require closer investigation — one appeared to be wet and smudged. He went through each message, using a magnifying glass to examine notes with smaller script, looking for vulgarity and secret codes.

One note mentioned the restricted size — "It's not much I can write on this little card."

When asked, Ivey agreed that the postcard policy saved money by saving time. He stressed that the primary inspiration was safety concerns for those who sort the mail and preventing incoming contraband, though he couldn't give an example of a mail-related injury.

The ACLU attorney said an inmate's ability to maintain relationships outside the jail is crucial to reducing the likelihood he or she will commit another crime. He wouldn't go so far as to say the policy violated the First Amendment, but said he would examine the change.

"We're going to take a look at Brevard's new policy and consider its impact," Stevenson said.

"It's in everybody's interest to have inmates maintain good relationships with the people outside the jail or prison walls," Stevenson said. "When they're released they have to have a relationship to go back to. If they don't, the incidence of recidivism and return to a life of crime increases by several factors, exponentially."

Ivey said the new policy wouldn't restrict that ability to communicate.

"Well, I don't have specifics on the study of mail and recidivism, but what I will tell you is: I look at it from my own aspect. If I was in there, I'd want to have contact with my family and everyone else and want them to have contact with me. And we made sure when we set our policy up, that we did not do anything that would inhibit that. If you have a family member in there, you can send them 20 post cards."

How much love fits in a few square inches? Postcards vary, but if some real-estate is consumed by an address, writers might be lucky to transmit a couple hundred words in 12-point Times New Roman. For those with too much to share, there is no limit on the number of postcards inmates can receive. Under the new policy, the price for a lengthy message has effectively increased. More postage would be needed to send several postcards instead of a single letter. So 20 postcards at $0.33 each would cost $6.60, as opposed to $0.46 for one first-class stamp.

Ivey pointed out that several other counties have such a mail policy and a judge issued a summary judgment in West Palm Beach upholding the policy.

The ACLU attorney said there are probably a dozen counties in Florida that have such a policy, but the two times it has been challenged by a person with the aid of a lawyer, the policy has been reversed.

"It boggles my mind why you would do that," said Larry Lawton, ex-convict and corrections system commentator. "You've got people in there who might be innocent. They can't get mail?"

"It makes no sense for rehabilitation," said the former convict turned life coach, later adding "I lived on mail. It saved my life."

Legal correspondence, "Jail Complex Administration approved correspondence," publications and money orders are still allowed. Inmates can send letters as long as they like out of the jail.

Jail policy dictates postcards have to be at least 3.5 by 5 inches large, written or typed in blue or black ink only, with no stickers, labels, plastic wrapping, paint, crayon or marker. They can't be have lipstick, perfume, or watermarks.

Unacceptable postcards will be returned to sender.

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